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Monday, June 26, 2017

Is Wales being complacent over fire risk in high rise buildings?

The latest news that sixty tower blocks across England have been found to have unsafe cladding is deeply disturbing. At the time much of this cladding was installed it complied with fire regulations. It appears that this is not the case now. But what about Wales?

In my view there needs to be an urgent review of building regulations so as to ensure that they are fit for purpose and to take account of new construction methods. That is a devolved function so why has the Welsh Government not announced that it is doing this work, or at least given an indication that it will do so once the causes of the fire are better understood?

The Welsh Government has offered reassurance that the material used in cladding schemes on our 36 social housing tower blocks is different to that affixed to the Grenfell Tower, Much of that cladding is mineral based and is therefore non-combustible. And with that information the media has refocused is attention on England. But is that enough?

I do not believe that there is any immediate threat to social tenants living in high rise blocks in Wales but I do think that more work needs to be done to reinforce the assurances that have been given to them. It is vital that tests are carried out immediately on all the materials used in cladding those blocks and the outcome of those tests publicised. Why is so little known about whether this is happening?

Equally as important we need to better understand the way that the cladding has been affixed to these buildings. Experts have said that the fire spread so quickly at the Grenfell Tower because the cladding was affixed to vertical pillars creating effective chimneys that carried the flames upwards. Is that a standard means of carrying out this work? Is that the case in Wales? If so then it may need to be revisited to break up those vertical funnels.

There has been a lot of focus on the 36 social housing towers in Wales and all those who own these buildings have done a lot of work on calming the fears of tenants, but very little seems to be known about other high rise buildings. Housing Associations own a number of towers, including in Swansea. Should they not be publishing the outcome of their investigations?

Seven of these blocks have been retrofitted with sprinkler systems, a tribute to the far-sightedness of the Welsh Assembly in insisting on passing a law requiring sprinklers in all new buildings. But isn't it time that the remaining blocks were also retrofitted in this way? Hard wired smoke alarms and robust safety instructions are important, but if a fire can be snuffed out as soon as it starts then that is invaluable.

There are also a large number of high rise towers in private ownership, many of which contain sub-let flats. Nobody knows what cladding or construction methods have been used on these towers. In many cases the developer would have overseen building regulation approval themselves under a delegated scheme agreed with local councils.

There are also non-residential public buildings containing offices which have been over-clad, not to mention cladding that has been affixed to schools and hospitals.

I do not raise these issues to create any sense of panic. I have no evidence that any of these buildings are at risk. However, I expect the Welsh Government and local councils to be seen putting together an action plan that over a short period of time will examine all these buildings and put in place any action needed to ensure they meet the highest possible safety standards.

We are getting regular updates on what is happening in England with regards to this work. Money is being promised to help to correct any deficiencies. Can we now see the same sense of urgency in Wales?
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